The UK’s exit from the European Union and the Common Agricultural Policy will have a profound impact on the farming, food and environment sectors.
There are two interlinked key questions that will frame the debate around the future of these sectors. First of all, what level of financial subsidy should our farmers receive? And secondly, what do the public wish to receive in return for this subsidy?
In the short term we will see little change as existing ways of working are likely to be rolled over until Westminster finds the parliamentary time to decide on any new legislation.
The UK’s farming unions argue that the same level of agricultural subsidy should continue post Brexit but unless urban Britain agrees then any deal struck between the farming unions and the government won't last, as the voters won't support it over the longer term. When money is short why should we give money to farmers when people are waiting in NHS hospital corridors for medical treatment?
Post Brexit, farmers will need to comply with the dictum of 'public goods for public money' and indeed there are many ‘public goods’ that farmers could supply in return for the continuation of their subsidies. These could include; maintaining high standards of animal welfare, the protection and enhancement of wildlife on farms, minimum use of pesticides and fertilizers, and more organic production.
Potentially farmers also have a huge role to play in helping tackle climate change and its effects. For instance they could help prevent downstream flooding (at least 70% of rain falls on managed farmland) through water management and the strategic planting of trees and hedge. They can assist in the creation of healthier soils that trap more carbon and water, and work towards the restoration of wetlands, including peatlands. There is more carbon held in the peatlands of northern England than in all the forests of France, Germany and the UK put together.
In their role as guardians of our countryside farmers could also encourage greater access to rural areas by the public which would have a positive health impact for town and city dwellers, whilst educating them on where their food comes from.
Not to be forgotten, subsidies mean cheaper food for the customer. Remove some or all of the subsidy and food prices are likely to rise. We could import more food at cheaper prices but this would have an environmental impact and imports can be of a lower quality, for example chlorine washed chicken from the USA.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom, has talked about slashing red tape for UK farmers post Brexit. While no doubt there are aspects of CAP legislation that can be sensibly removed, much of what ‘comes from Brussels’ will still have to be adhered to by our farmers even outside of the EU. Failure to follow these rules would mean our farmers would not be able to sell to the EU27, which for the foreseeable future will remain our agricultural biggest single market. For instance France takes nearly all our exported lamb.
My view is that we need to do all we can to encourage farmers and the environment sector to come together to find common ground. Farmers need to travel from rural Northumberland and County Durham into the urban areas of Tyneside and Wearside and make the case for taxpayers’ money to keep coming their way and they need to listen to what the ‘townies’ what in return. In this process farmers will need to recognise that environmental organisations like the RSPB, the Wildfowl Trusts and the National Trust have big memberships who are predominantly urban based. If these organisations decide the new post Brexit farming plan is bad for the environment they will inform their members accordingly and public support for ongoing farm subsidies will drain away. Given the Conservatives now hold more urban seats than Labour this could well result in many Conservative MPs starting to also question farm subsidies. Which is why Professor Buckwell of the Institute for European Environmental Policy was right when he said at the recent NFU Scotland conference, “Farmers and environmentalists can make a much stronger case for continued subsidies if they work together”.